A Japanese fly-fishing art comes to life

Centuries-old tenkara is becoming a hit on streams in the American West.

  • Tenkara, which roughly means "from heaven," is a centuries-old Japanese fishing technique that is simpler than modern fly-fishing.

    Ryan Sanchez
  • Tenkara, which roughly means "from heaven," is a centuries-old Japanese fishing technique that is simpler than modern fly-fishing.

    Ryan Sanchez
 

It is snowing in the Sierra, and my 7-year-old niece, Mayli, scrambles up one of the icy boulders that hangs over this eastern California creek. We're here to fish for trout, but it's December, and the forecast – for both weather and fish – is grim. The rivers have been skinny for weeks, and snow blankets the mountains, sending the rainbows, browns and cutthroats into hiding.

Our companion, Daniel Galhardo, bounds up a steep granite outcrop, eager to teach us an ancient way to fish. Galhardo has been fishing throughout the three decades of his life, starting with rods he made from branches in Brazil, where he was born. He's slim and graceful, with neatly cropped hair and beard, dressed as if for an alpine ascent in a down jacket and thick-soled boots. But tucked into his waistband is a fishing net he made from a branch of Jeffrey pine, and in his hand he carries a 12-foot-long rod of his own design, based on models he saw in Japan, where he learned about a fly-fishing tradition called tenkara.

Tenkara, which roughly means "from heaven," is a modern name for a centuries-old Japanese fishing technique. It had almost died out by the 1980s, when a professor of sports science named Hisao Ishigaki started researching its history and demonstrated it on Japanese TV. Records are scarce, but it's known that tenkara was practiced by highland peasants who fished mountain streams for char and trout to sell at market. The thick brush and deep gullies left little room for long lines or sweeping back-casts, so the peasants devised clever ways to swing, roll and slingshot flies to reach tucked-away fish. Sawa no bori, waterfall-climbing skills, often came in handy.

A tenkara rig could not be simpler – just a pole, a line and a fly. No reel. The rod is longer and thinner than its Western cousins, and it tapers dramatically to a strong but flexible tip and a fixed length of line, usually between 10 to 25 feet, depending on the angler's skill and choice of locale. Together, a pole and line provide 24 to 41 feet of reach, just enough for the tight corners of a mountain stream, where perfect placement is the challenge. Because the rod is built from telescoping segments of graphite or bamboo, it collapses down to a baton that can fit into a back pocket. The rod, with a spool of line, weighs just ounces. Flies, called kebari, are tied with a reverse hackle, a feather that flares like a tutu towards the hook's eye to help them ride currents. Tenkara anglers, always economical, use just a handful of patterns rather than lugging an arsenal of flies.

Galhardo found his first tenkara rod in a tackle shop in Japan in 2008 while studying fly-fishing traditions around the world. "It was exactly what I'd been looking for," he says. "As I'd advanced with fishing, it became all about second-guessing which fly to use, which reel, which rod." When he was a kid, he explains, "fishing had been simple, joyful, relaxing. Tenkara brought that all back to me."

Galhardo was so inspired that within a year he quit his banking job to found Tenkara USA, introducing the method outside of Japan for the first time. He started the company in San Francisco, then moved it to Boulder, Colo. Other burnt-out anglers and gear minimalists quickly discovered what Galhardo had; today, Galhardo travels around the country and abroad for clinics and trade shows, including the annual Tenkara USA Summit. Fly-fishing guides in practically every state with fishable rivers have embraced the method, and the fly-fishing giant Orvis now sells Galhardo's rods ($215 for a complete outfit).

Tenkara has also caught the attention of Yvon Chouinard, the well-known environmentalist and founder of the Patagonia outdoor gear and clothing company, whose book on the subject, Simple Fly Fishing: Techniques for Tenkara and Rod & Reel, comes out this month. Chouinard received a tenkara rod as a gift from a Japanese friend in the 1990s, but he didn't know what it was, so he let it languish in a closet. Some 15 years later, an Italian octogenarian who still hammers his own hooks and twists horsehair into line taught Chouinard a technique from Italy's Sesia River Valley that's remarkably similar to tenkara. After Chouinard got home, he dusted off his tenkara rod. It's never been stowed away again. He told me that he catches four times as many fish in an afternoon than he ever did with a rod and reel.

High Country News Classifieds
  • UNIQUE, ENERGY-EFFICIENT HOME ON ACREAGE NEAR MOSCOW, IDAHO
    Custom-built energy-efficient 3000 sqft two-story 3BR home, 900 sqft 1 BR accessory cottage above 2-car garage and large shop. Large horse barn. $1,200,000. See online...
  • OUTDOOR ADVENTURE BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Missoula Outdoor Learning Adventures (MOLA) - established and profitable outdoor adventure & education business in Missoula, Montana. Summer camp, raft & climb guide, teen travel,...
  • OJO SARCO FARM/HOME
    A wonderful country setting for a farm/work 1350s.f. frame home plus 1000 studio/workshop. 5 acres w fruit trees, an irrigation well, pasture and a small...
  • STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Join Skagit Land Trust (the Trust), a not-for-profit conservation organization based in Mount Vernon, Washington, and help protect land for people and wildlife. Skagit Land...
  • 2022 SEASONAL SCIENCE EDUCATOR
    The Mount St. Helens Institute Science Educator supports our science education and rental programs including day and overnight programs for youth ages 6-18, their families...
  • POLICY DIRECTOR
    Heart of the Rockies Initiative is seeking a Policy Director to lead and define policy efforts to advance our mission to keep working lands and...
  • CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER
    Self-Help Enterprises seeks an experienced and strategic CFO
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST - LAND PROTECTION FOCUS
    View full job description and how to apply at
  • RIVER EDUCATOR & GUIDE
    River Educator & Guide River Educator & Guide (Trip Leader) Non-exempt, Seasonal Position: Full-time OR part-time (early April through October; may be flexible with start/end...
  • LAND AND WATER CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    The Land and Water Conservation Director is a full-time salaried position with the Mountain Area Land Trust in Evergreen, CO. The successful candidate will have...
  • FOOD SYSTEMS ENVIRONMENTAL FELLOWSHIP
    If you were to design a sustainable society from the ground up, it would look nothing like the contemporary United States. But what would it...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is seeking an Executive Director who will lead RiGHT toward a future of continued high conservation impact, organizational...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Help protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Work hard, meet good people, make the world a better place!...
  • VERDE RIVER PROJECTS TECHNICIAN
    The Verde River Projects Technician (VRPT) provides technical assistance to Verde River Program staff in implementation of the Verde River Streamflow Monitoring Protocol. This consist...
  • 8 FIELD PROJECT SPECIALISTS (POSITION FORMERLY TITLED TRAIL CREW TECHNICAL ADVISOR)
    Are you passionate about environmental conservation and connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with outdoor leadership...
  • SOUTHWEST REWILDING ADVOCATE
    WildEarth Guardians is seeking a full-time advocate in our Wild Places Program to advance a new paradigm of forest management and protection based on the...
  • NEW BOOK:
    True Wildlife Tales From Boy to Man. Finding my voice to save wildlife in the Apache spirit. 365+ vivid colorful pictures. Buy on Amazon/John Wachholz
  • CHIEF OPERATIONS OFFICER
    with Rural Community Assistance Corporation. Apply here: https://www.marcumllp.com/executive-search/chief-operations-officer-rcac
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, Hike the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • WATER PROJECT MANAGER, UPPER SAN PEDRO (ARIZONA)
    Based in Tucson or Sierra Vista, AZ., the Upper San Pedro Project Manager develops, manages, and advances freshwater conservation programs, plans, and methods focusing on...